Rapper Wakes Up Stifled Generation in Cambodia
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California rapper wakes up stifled generation in Cambodia
By Chris Decherd / Associated Press
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia -- Cambodians tend to treat the
genocidal Khmer Rouge regime as a period to be forgotten:
School textbooks barely mention it, popular literature
glosses over it, parents are often reluctant to delve into
their private horrors. Now, a brash new rap album is
breaking the taboos by telling young Cambodians about the
darkest chapter of their country's history. At parties, in
bars and in homes around Phnom Penh, the album has
teen-agers buzzing about songs on death, forced labor and
The End'n is Jus the Beginnin -- written by a
Cambodian-American -- reflects on the years in the 1970s
when 1.7 million people died in the communist Khmer Rouge's
attempt to turn Cambodia into a large agrarian commune.
The 17-song album was recorded in a garage in Long Beach,
Calif., by Prach Ly, a 21-year-old who has never returned to
Cambodia since emigrating to the United States in 1983 at
the age of 4.
He says he never envisioned the music having an impact in
"I was very surprised at how big this got. When I did it, it
was just a demo, to pass around to a few friends," says
Prach Ly in a telephone interview from Long Beach.
"The lyrics, the message had been inside me a long time, and
I wanted to release it," he says, adding that he is hoping a
record company will help him record the songs in a studio.
Three of the songs are in the Khmer language and the rest
are in English interspersed with Khmer (pronounced Kh-maai).
"When I first heard this it was, 'Wow! This is exciting,' "
says Nguon Phan Sophea, 24, who owns the Galaxy CD shop in
Phnom Penh. He says he heard the CD last year at the home of
a friend who had bought it in Long Beach, where many
Cambodian immigrants live.
He borrowed the CD, made 50 copies, designed a
yellow-and-green CD cover, called it Cambodian Rap and put
the discs up for sale for $2 in his shop.
There are no laws protecting intellectual property rights in
Cambodia and virtually all of the music sold here is
Nguon says he has sold nearly 300 copies of the CD and let
Cambodia's largest music store, CD World, burn copies from
his. CD World has sold more than 400 copies, store manager
Chy Sila says.
The album has caught on among the trendy urban youth of the
capital, who often have access to MTV and English-language
One verse in the Khmer language song "Born" says: "Power,
property, girls, money. What's the use of them, if
relatives, children, spouses, families are split up..."
The English-language track "In 1975" goes: "Families
separated by sex and ages; We worked for food, and got kinda
hazy; Put us in camp that we called the cages."
"I remember they shot him, shot point blank in front of his
children ... I can't maintain. I'm going insane. Hell on
earth, it can't get any worse."
The Khmer Rouge was ousted in 1979 after a four-year rule.
Sociologists attribute many Cambodians' reluctance to dwell
on those years to the Cambodian Buddhist philosophy of
forgetting and forgiving.
During its rule, the Khmer Rouge banned all art, literature
and music that did not praise the communist party and its
leader, Pol Pot.
Most performing artists, painters, doctors, lawyers and
teachers were killed. People who wore glasses were
identified as intellectuals and executed.
"They said intellectual people were not needed in the field
... books burned, schools turned into barns," say the lyrics
of "In 1975."
Creativity was so systematically crushed that even 25 years
later, little new work is produced. Recording companies
recycle old love songs. Literature and filmmaking are
nonexistent. Art consists mainly of generic, commercial
paintings of Angkor temples and "apsaras," or celestial
Sophoann Sope Hul, 37, one of Cambodia's best-known disc
jockeys, says a "deep fear" inhibits self-expression.
"Everyone wants to express themselves like these guys (Prach
Ly and his band), but they're afraid," he says. "In
Cambodia, no one would dare say what those guys say. It's
"These songs are a step forward," he says.
Some people hope that Prach Ly's music will kick-start the
creativity of a numb nation. A 23-year-old disc jockey known
as NCK says he and his friends want to produce similar rap.
"We want to bring it to the new generation, and talk about
reality, talk about society," he says.
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